Within days of my first real rock climb, a crumbly 5.7 on Moonstone Beach at the age of 21, I was completely consumed by a wild and unruly passion for all things climbing. Rock overtook my life with an unprecedented combustive fervor during what had mainly been a listless collegiate existence. Much as lost souls find religion, I found climbing, and much as true believers often do, I went on a pilgrimage to what may as well have been the literal Mecca: Yosemite Valley.
The Yosemite Free Climbs guidebook was my bible and the Valley itself the holiest of churches. There were other important religious texts, though, one of the most holy being Climbing magazine. Though my income was in the low four figures, I’d occasionally forgo a couple beers to spring for an issue. And then I would read it zealously from cover to cover, even all the copy in the ads. Then I would reread it.
Certain photos and stories etched themselves so deeply into the fabric of my psyche that they still guide my life to this day. For me, the most heroic of prophets that I discovered within those hallowed pages was Peter Croft. I remember picking up an old back issue at a friend’s house with Peter on the cover sticking to the blank corner of The Shadow, a 5.12d in Squamish, as if he had super-human powers. Reading about his accomplishments as a climber seemed as otherworldly as Superman jumping over the Empire State Building. Peter’s ropeless ascent of Astroman, a 1,100-foot 5.11c on Washington Column in Yosemite, was the most badass thing I could ever imagine. So when I got a call from photographer Greg Epperson asking if I would belay Croft for a photoshoot on The Acid Crack, a 5.12d in Joshua Tree, you might as well have asked me if I wanted to ride in a spaceship with Jesus.
Two days later, there I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with Croft! It turned out there was a heat wave and it was much too hot to climb, so Peter offered to give me a catch. With Peter belaying me, I sketched out the hand jams on More Monkey Then Funky, a 5.11 roof. But what struck me more than anything else that day was just how plainly human and normal Peter was. Honestly, it was kind of a let down. I’d imagined a transformative experience basking in this guy’s glory, but what I got was the discovery that my holiest of heroes was just another dude. In that sense, I guess meeting Croft was pretty Earth-shattering—just not in the way I expected. Peter Croft is still my hero, though, and now-—even better—he’s become a friend. Climbing is a unique sport where it is common to meet your heroes. Unlike team sports where the best play on a separate field, in climbing, we all frequent the same cliffs. You could bump into Lynn Hill at Rifle, or Tommy Caldwell among the boulders in Yosemite. Which brings me to a climber you might call the second coming of Peter Croft: my good friend and part-time hero Alex Honnold, quite possibly the most famous and idolized climber in the world today.
I’ve been lucky to share some fun adventures with Alex in some far-off stretches of the world, and I am here to spoil your illusions that he, just like all other climbers, is anything but human. Alex is simply a good guy, one whom I sometimes worry about. After Alex soloed Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Monkeyfinger (5.12a), and Shune’s Buttress (5.11c) in a day (still, in my opinion, one of his more unsung but impressive feats), he called me up with a wavering voice.
After topping out Shune’s, which everyone else rappels, he was forced to put up a first ascent on a 2,000-foot, snow-covered, decomposing slab—“easy,” if you consider onsight-soloing 5.9 kitty litter easy. High on this loose slab, with 2,000 feet straight to the deck below, he simultaneously broke a foothold and a handhold, which sent him cartwheeling down the face. Alex Honnold fell soloing! To hear him tell it, he kind of knew this might happen and had planned on grabbing a tree he’d been eyeballing about 15 feet down if the shitty holds he was using didn’t work out. He caught the tree but banged his knee pretty badly, and then was forced to find another variation of his intended route, which went better. Alex explained to me that it technically didn’t count as a free-solo fall because he had his approach shoes on.
This summer while Alex and I enchained all of the 14ers in California by bike, he talked a bit about El Sendero Luminoso, a wild 1,500-foot wall of limestone with 11 5.12 pitches in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. He had toyed with the idea of soloing it last winter, but realized that the route needed more cleaning and sussing before it was a “responsible” decision. This summer, he called me up and asked if I’d be interested in helping him with the project. I’d always wanted to climb the route, and as a soloist myself, I jumped at the chance to help push the progression of free soloing forward in my own small way.
We cleaned the shit out of the route, and Alex repeated the crux second pitch countless times because all of the holds were sideways and one slip would result in an irrecoverable death plummet. We figured out the 1,000-foot exit climb, and then after eight days, he was ready. The morning of the big day, he lounged in bed, surfed Instagram, and ate some yogurt and granola. Nothing remarkable. Then he set off to free solo the route. I filmed the historic moment along with another one of my hero-friends, Renan Ozturk, a world-class filmmaker and alpinist. It wasn’t really scary to watch Alex. It was like observing a good line cook methodically whip up an omelet, or a taxi driver taking the quickest route downtown. The solo was a rather boring display of businesslike comfort and control.
After eight days of hard work helping Alex, filming, and generally toiling, I had missed my chance to redpoint the route myself. We finished the final interviews for the film, the sun began to set, and we realized we were flying out the next day. I was pretty bummed to have come so far just to scrub a route and not climb it. “We could always go right now,” Alex said, half-joking. “You know what, that’s a good idea,” I said, not wanting to let the gauntlet he had thrown down go unanswered. “I should.”
And so we walked up to the base of El Sendero Luminoso one more time by the last embers of daylight. I proceeded to pick my way up the technical crimping and footwork in a surreal bubble of headlamp light. After I freed the crux second pitch, I realized that I might have a chance, but there was still more than 1,000 feet of hard technical climbing above me.
And then in a classic moment of “first-world problems,” I dropped my iPhone off the cliff trying to play some music. But it didn’t matter. I was that first-time climber again, devoutly enraptured by a sense of purpose and worth in what I was doing. In that moment, nothing could suppress an unbridled sense of passion that was reminiscent of my first heady, religious years. As if on cue, a mariachi band started playing loudly in the town down below. They serenaded Alex and me all the way to the summit. I didn’t free solo Sendero, and I never will, but I got the consolation of what I believe to be the first “in a night” free ascent. Worked and completely satisfied, I stood at the top of the spectacular 1,500-foot route when Alex jumared up to me and said, “Nice work, dude. That was kind of heroic!”
Having heroes inspires us to work harder, go farther, and pursue our own dreams of greatness. In other words, to be a little more heroic ourselves.
Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing Magazine. Gus the all-terrain pug is his full-time hero.